Both Obama and Snowden naively believe that if the U.S. abandons key defense tools, rival nations will soon follow its lead.
It is tempting not to take Edward Snowden very seriously. The young National Security Agency leaker is a supposed defender of the U.S. Constitution who violates his oaths and subverts the democratic process; a self-proclaimed civil libertarian who seeks hospitality from the jailers of Beijing, Moscow and maybe Havana. But it is worth considering Snowden's fanciful strategy for curbing global cyber espionage—if only because it so closely resembles Barack Obama's strategy for curbing nuclear weapons.
Snowden's approach might be called "cyber zero," as distinct from President Obama's pursuit of "nuclear zero," or the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Both offer a troubling mix of grand dreams and faulty national-security logic.
What is Snowden after? Contrary to initial claims by some of his defenders, he isn't a "whistle-blower" protecting fellow Americans from perceived violations of their constitutional rights. Rather, by revealing secrets that have nothing to do with Americans' privacy rights (such as how Washington monitors computer networks in China and diplomats meeting in Britain), Snowden conveys that his intent is far broader.
As the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, who has published most of the Snowden leaks, told CNN last week: "From the first time that I spoke with him, he was very worried that, essentially, what the NSA was doing was destroying privacy globally. That by working with other governments, that by targeting citizens around the world, they were destroying the concept of privacy and anonymity and Internet freedom and creating this world-wide, global surveillance net from which nobody on the planet was free." So Snowden, self-appointed, fights for privacy and Internet freedom world-wide.
His method so far is to leak information that compromises U.S. data-gathering efforts and causes headaches for the officials behind them, thereby weakening existing programs and creating political pressure, at home and abroad, to dial them back. This has worked to a degree: NSA chief Keith Alexander has complained of "irreversible and significant damage," and Washington is now facing questions from angry voters and foreign capitals.
But imagine that Snowden's leaks had accomplished dramatically more, bringing hundreds of thousands of Americans into the streets and causing Washington to close the NSA and convene a new Church Commission to take America out of the cyber espionage business. Then what? The world would still be full of other governments (and private groups) pursuing cyber espionage for all sorts of reasons, not least China, Russia and Iran. Does Snowden think that America's retirement from the cyber game would get such countries to end their extensive foreign and domestic digital surveillance efforts in the name of privacy and Internet freedom?
The prospect is absurd. Yet a similar calculation is right now driving the Obama administration's nuclear-weapons policy.
"Nuclear zero" has been an Obama priority since day one. Central to the president's relationships with Russia, NATO and Europe, it has been the subject of countless diplomatic endorsements, summit meetings and high-profile speeches, including last week in Berlin. It led to America's New Start arms-reduction treaty with Moscow in 2010, and it is driving Mr. Obama's latest push to cut U.S. nuclear forces, this time by a third.
All along, the realization of nuclear zero has depended on other countries (all other countries) following the U.S. into disarmament. They're not doing so. Not the North Koreans, not the Iranians, not the Chinese and not even the Russians, who are now pushing back against further cuts. "Moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon," said Mr. Obama upon announcing his vision in Prague in 2009—empty rhetoric then and now.
Yet the president presses on, promising not to develop new nuclear warheads and ignoring needed modernizations of existing nuclear infrastructure. When other countries spurn America's lead—undermining the whole nuclear-zero premise—the president largely ignores them. In Berlin last week, he mentioned North Korea and Iran only once, as countries that "may be seeking" nuclear weapons.
This denial of nuclear reality is akin to Edward Snowden's silence on the state of privacy rights in those countries coming to his aid. While giving interviews from Hong Kong, Snowden chose not to highlight how China denies free speech to 1.3 billion people, or how Beijing cut off the Internet to Xinjiang (a region about five times the size of Germany) for almost a year starting in July 2009. One doubts that Snowden's sojourn in Russia will inspire him to speak up for Anna Politkovskaya or the many other journalists killed for shining light on Vladimir Putin's system of brutality and information control.
There is obviously no moral equivalence between the criminal conduct of Snowden and the policymaking of Mr. Obama, twice elected president and commander in chief partly on the popularity of ideas such as nuclear zero. Snowden had no right to act on his wishful thinking by ignoring all channels of political accountability and going to the press to try to bring about a world without Internet snooping. By contrast, Mr. Obama's case of wishful thinking is just conventional politics.
But nuclear zero and its illogic of unilateral disarmament are serious business. America's promises to degrade its nuclear forces will more likely encourage Iran, North Korea and China to seek nuclear strength than to shun it. In the nuclear and cyber realms alike, American withdrawal would be provocative. Until all men are angels, deterrence is a more responsible bet than dreams of "zero."
Mr. Feith is an editorial writer at The Wall Street Journal Asia.